The healthiest man in the world

First aired on Q (07/05/12) and on George Strombolopolous Tonight (08/05/12)

aj-smoothie-175.jpgEssayist and bestselling author A.J. Jacobs' life has been a series of experiments in self-improvement. First, he attempted to become the smartest man in the world by reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, an experience he chronicles in his book The Know-It-All. Then, he worked on his soul, when he explored biblical literalism in The Year of Living Biblically. Jacobs' latest project has been an overhaul of his health, something many of us regularly pledge to do (and something many of us fail to follow through on). He vowed to turn his "easily winded" and "skinny fat" body into a fine-tuned machine.

In Drop Dead Healthy, Jacobs traces his quest to become the healthiest man alive, and he left no stone unturned. In fact, thanks to the incredible amount of often-conflicting health information, weight-loss products, exercise regimens and "miracle diets" out there these days, he was confronted with many stones.

"I wanted to do two things," he told Q host Jian Ghomeshi during a recent interview. "One, I wanted to test out all of the advice and the most evidence-based advice, the one that the scientists say really works, and then I also wanted to do, I knew it would be hopefully entertaining, to do sort of the extremes. So you've got to dabble in the extremes, the fundamentalists."

Over the course of book, Jacobs details his experiences with ideas like the calorie restriction movement (eating very little and focusing on every bite), extreme chewing or "Chewdaism" (chewing each mouthful up to 100 times before swallowing), juice fasts, colonic treatments, Neanderthal fitness and laughter yoga. Most of the fringe diets or health plans he came across have little scientific support to back them up and most were too extreme for him to sustain long-term.

If you're considering taking on a new health regime, Jacobs suggests the best approach is to treat it as if you were choosing a movie to watch and checking out the aggregated reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Read every report, every study, every interview, every online forum debate you can get your hands on, and then evaluate for yourself.

"Just don't listen to one doctor, one source, look at everything, and that will help you," he said. Throughout his health experiments, Jacobs did not find a magic bullet, cure-all approach to optimal health, but he has seen enough common ground to offer some easy-to-follow and effective advice: Do more, eat less, relax. Also, try to avoid refined carbs and sugar. It's not particularly sexy, but it works.

healthy-125.jpgThe relax part is also important because worrying too much about healthy living is actually pretty unhealthy for you. "Orthorexia," one doctor called it, or the unhealthy obsession with avoiding unhealthy food. As Jacobs points out, fretting too much about what to eat could cause you to skip having dinner with friends and family. Spending all your time in the gym could lead you to miss playtime with your kids. And after all, spending time with your loved ones is one of the most important reasons to stay alive and well.

"We can control a good amount of our health, by most estimates about 50 per cent by our behaviour, but then there's 50 per cent you can't control -- accidents and genetics," Jacobs said.

Just as he completed his book, Jacobs' extremely health-conscious aunt Marti, a strict vegan and champion of green, organic products, passed away at 63 after battling a form of leukemia.

"It was a reminder that you can't control everything."